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This Week in Genre History: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull nukes the fridge
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
Needless to say, 19 years is an unusually long period of time to go between sequels in a movie franchise. The distance between, say, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: The Force Awakens? 16 years. Heck, it was 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. Even The Godfather and The Godfather Part III had 18 years between them.
But the span between 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Crystal Skull somehow tops them all. The idea of a fourth Indiana Jones movie had been something Steven Spielberg had been resisting for years, saying he'd "matured" as a filmmaker after the initial trilogy. (He was off to the world of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan by then. Also Jurassic Park, of course.) But George Lucas always loved the idea of an older Indiana Jones dealing with the scary world of the 1950s, and Harrison Ford always made sure to stay in shape, just in case he was called upon to don the fedora again.
And thus: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This week, we look at the fourth Indiana Jones movie, which hit theaters on May 22, 2008, 12 years ago this month. The movie continues to live on, discussed regularly 12 years later... but perhaps not in the ways the filmmakers might have preferred.
In fact, there is a fifth Indiana Jones movie coming in 2022, one that may exist to help blur the memory of this one. Because when people speak lovingly of Indiana Jones movies... they're not usually talking about this one.
Why was it a big deal at the time? It's Indiana Jones! Who didn't want to see Indiana Jones? Even more so, this one made sure to get the whole band back together. Ford and Spielberg were back, but so was Karen Allen, playing Marion again, with the revelation that she and Indy had a son together that Indy didn't know about, "Mutt" Williams, a motorcycle rebel played by Shia LaBeouf. It also introduced Irina Spalko, a Russian agent played with high relish by Cate Blanchett, a rare blockbuster appearance for one of the most respected actresses of her time.
While The Last Crusade didn't get quite the incredible reception of the first two Indiana Jones movies, people still loved it, and Indiana Jones is still one of the most iconic figures in American film and popular culture. Who wouldn't want to see another Indiana Jones movie?
On opening weekend, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull earned $101 million in three days, giving it the third-highest opening weekend total of all time. People were elated that Indy was back. But perhaps not for long.
What was the impact? In the history of Indiana Jones movies, if there's one scene fans will spend the rest of their lives trying to forget, it's this one:
Yeah, Spielberg and Lucas are never going to live down the "nuke the fridge" moment. (They've actually both taken turns blaming themselves for it, though to our minds, it sure feels more Lucas-y than Spielbergian.) The idea of Indiana Jones in a '50s suburban setting where there's a test nuclear bomb is not a terrible one, but having him escape it by jumping in a lead-lined refrigerator, getting thrown into the high heavens, and then pop out like nothing happened (and greeted by a rodent!) is something else entirely.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has all sorts of problems — the aliens, LaBeouf's lame character and performance, its whole "family-friendly" tone and vibe — but "nuking the fridge" is what people will always remember. The whole point of the Indiana Jones movies is that they were exciting, but they were also real — rigorous, believable. The fridge sequence was fantastical, but in a dumb way. And, like so much else in the film, featured CGI in a way that felt lackadaisical... even dull.
The movie made a lot of money. But it received the worst reviews of the series, by far. In many ways, Spielberg and Lucas are both still apologizing for it.
Has it held up? It's still fun seeing Ford in the fedora, and having Karen Allen back is an underrated pleasure. Blanchett is certainly enjoying vamping up her character, even if she was doing something a little more daring and unusual than perhaps Spielberg was ready for. But yeah: LaBeouf is really terrible and miscast in the film — something he himself acknowledged later on, much to the frustration of Spielberg — and the CGI is overwhelming at times, and very much not in the spirit of what Indiana Jones had historically been about. The movie is also bloated and even a little rambling. It's a mess.
Spielberg has defended the film from time to time, but only half-heartedly. He still mostly apologizes for it. (It's worth noting that we at Grierson & Leitch put it dead last in our ranking of Spielberg films at Vulture.) In order to fix the bad taste left by Crystal Skull, there's an Indiana Jones 5 in production, though it, like everything else, has been slowed by the coronavirus. This time, though, Spielberg may be voting with his feet: He isn't directing, handing it off to James Mangold. Ford will be back. LaBeouf will not.